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Updated 10:00 AM April 17, 2006
 

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  Research
Study: TV a poor diet for preschoolers

Television entertains and educates the youngest of children and often gives parents a much-needed break. But allowing preschool-age children to watch too much TV—even educational shows like Sesame Street or Disney DVDs—could be putting them at risk for being overweight.

In a study exploring the relationship between excessive TV exposure and overweight risk for preschool-age children, researchers at the U-M Health System found 3-year-old children exposed to two or more hours of TV daily were nearly three times more likely to be overweight than children who either watched or were in a room with a TV on for fewer than two hours a day, regardless of the child's environment at home.

The findings, published in the April issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, also reveal than one in four 3-year-old children are exposed to five or more hours of TV a day, far surpassing the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that TV and other media exposure for children ages 2 and older be limited to less than two hours a day.

In a typical American home, the TV is on more than seven hours a day, with most children spending more time watching TV than in school—and that balance could be to blame for children's expanding waistlines, says study lead author Dr. Julie Lumeng, assistant research scientist at the Center for Human Growth and Development.

"Television viewing for preschool-age children appears to be a powerful predictor of overweight risk," says Lumeng, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the Medical School. "Even if a child comes from a two-parent, upper-class home and the TV being watched is considered educational, that child is still at a higher risk for being overweight than a child who watches fewer than two hours of TV a day."

In a previous study, Lumeng found that children with more behavior problems are more likely to become overweight. Likewise, research also has shown that children who watch excessive amounts of TV have more behavioral problems. From her clinical practice, Lumeng knew that children from low-income backgrounds or those who have a lot of stress at home watch more TV and are more likely to be overweight.

For the current study, Lumeng and colleagues looked at 1,016 children at ages 3 and 4-1/2.

The children in the study were classed as overweight if their body mass index (BMI) was at or above the 95th percentile. TV exposure—defined as being awake in a room when the TV is on, whether or not the child actively was watching, and included broadcast and cable TV as well as videos—was determined based on a questionnaire completed by the children's mothers.

The researchers were able to see clear links between the amount of hours a child was exposed to TV and the potential to be overweight.

At 3 years old, children were three times more likely to be overweight if they were exposed to two or more hours of TV a day, and 25 percent watched more than five hours of TV daily.

By age 4-1/2, children with excessive exposure to TV were nearly three times more likely to be overweight than those with less TV exposure. While programming—whether it was an educational show or not—did not impact a child's overweight risk, Lumeng says excessive exposure to advertising on TV for unhealthy foods and the likelihood that a child may snack while watching TV may be contributing factors to weight gain.

"Parents should consider how much time the TV is simply on, not just the time the child actually spends watching it. Our findings suggest the exposing children to TV even as background noise may increase their overweight risk," Lumeng says. "Simply put, families should try to reduce the amount of time the TV is on in their homes. Reduced TV time is beneficial for everyone."

Along with Lumeng, U-M co-authors are Sahand Rahnama and Niko Kaciroti of the Center for Human Growth and Development.

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